Democrats scramble on oil

Positions shift in quest for price relief

August 05, 2008|By Michael Muskal and Peter Nicholas | Michael Muskal and Peter Nicholas,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LANSING, Mich. - With the politics of energy shifting as rapidly as gasoline prices, Democrats, led by Barack Obama, are retreating from long-held positions and scrambling to offer distressed voters more immediate relief from spiraling costs.

The change has been most striking on the campaign trail, where Obama said in a speech yesterday that he would abandon his past position and support tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to quickly cut prices at the gasoline pump.

His presidential campaign later released a statement warning that the "doubling of oil prices in the past year is a crisis for millions of Americans."

Obama's reversal on tapping the national stockpile of crude oil comes just days after he said, for the first time, that he would agree to some offshore drilling as part of a broader energy-policy compromise with Republicans, including John McCain, who has supported additional drilling.

Those shifts by Obama are indicative of the pressure politicians of both parties - but especially Democrats - are under to develop specific, short-term energy proposals in the face of rising costs. Against that backdrop, politicians risk looking insensitive if they put forth only solutions that could take years to hit the pump.

Republicans, too, have responded to such pressures. McCain only recently endorsed expanding offshore oil drilling, embracing a pro-production GOP principle that he had previously opposed. And in Florida, where offshore drilling has been anathema, Gov. Charlie Crist has dropped his stalwart opposition to such exploration.

That jockeying reflects a shift in public opinion that has upended policy debates as gas prices have soared and the economy has soured. In California, where opposition to offshore drilling is widespread, a poll last month by the Public Policy Institute of California showed 51 percent of respondents favoring more drilling - up 10 percentage points since July 2007, and the first time since the question was first posed in 2003 that more Californians favor offshore drilling than oppose it.

"It is just a frank reality: We have to do something," said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. "People have had to make some drastic changes in their own life, so they are ready to see the government make some choices."

Polls show that alarm over rising fuel costs and the economic downturn are voters' top concerns, and aides to McCain believe he is whittling into Obama's support by highlighting their differences on how best to cut prices, conserve resources, and cut dependence on foreign oil sources. McCain will visit the Enrico Fermi nuclear plant in Newport, Mich., today to demonstrate his support for greater reliance on nuclear power.

Michael Muskal and Peter Nicholas write for the Los Angeles Times.

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